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Mike Sorensen: Enigmatic Majerus will be remembered in Utah

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2 2012 6:00 p.m. MST

Rick Majerus led Utah to the NCAA Tournament 10 times, and to the title game once, during his 15 years as coach.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — I must have talked to Rick Majerus a thousand times. Probably more like two thousand.

Let’s see, there were the 300 or so games over a 10-year period when I covered the Utes for the Deseret News. There were a few hundred occasions after practices, and of course I’ll never forget those late-night phone calls — always after midnight — to his hotel suite at the University Park Hotel. I still remember the number — 581-1000.

It was always with some trepidation that I’d place those calls to the hotel and ask to be connected to “Rick Majerus.’’ He insisted I call as late as possible, so I’d always stay up past midnight to make the call. He was usually up watching tapes of his games or his upcoming opponents, most likely with some room service food on his lap.

I never knew what to expect. Sometimes he’d be abrupt, just answering enough so he could get back to watching tape. Other times he’d be jovial and engaging and we’d end up talking about basketball and who knows what else, into the wee hours.

Despite all of the conversations we shared, late-night and otherwise, and watching him up close for a decade, it was hard to get a handle on Rick Majerus, who sadly died Saturday at the age of 64.

I used to hear from players who told horrific stories of the way he would treat fellow players or assistant coaches or managers (he rarely learned their names and would yell out MANAGER!), or how crude he could be.

I also heard stories of his generous and kind nature, how he’d do things for total strangers or drop everything to go visit someone sick in the hospital. I recall the time he skipped the BYU game in Provo and flew to California to attend the funeral of Andre Miller’s step-father. I remember how choked up he'd get every time he talked about his own father, who also died in his early sixties, two years before Majerus came to Utah.

In short, Majerus was an enigma of the highest order.

He demanded his players be on time, which meant 15 minutes early as far as practice went, and he was prompt himself. However when it came to non-basketball-related stuff, he could show up an hour late and not act the least bit concerned that he’d kept anyone waiting.

He loved media attention and telling funny stories. Except not so much in his home state where for the most part he treated the media shabbily, when he could have had them eating out of his hand if he’d wanted to.

While he demanded that his players be disciplined on the court and in their personal lives, he wasn’t that way himself — his ongoing weight problem being the best example.

He was close friends with prominent people such as Jon Huntsman Sr. However, he never bothered to learn the names of people who worked just down the hall from him at the Huntsman Center. Yet if he ran into a fan at Denny’s, he’d go out to his car and pull Ute gear from the trunk to give them.

Rick Majerus was large and especially large in contradictions as I chronicled in a 3,500-word feature I wrote on him in 1998, the year he led his team to the NCAA Finals.

Majerus should have been honored by the university long before now for his accomplishments on the court, for turning Utah into a national powerhouse for more than a decade. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the university’s part. For some reason, Majerus never really embraced Utah all the way, or allowed it to embrace him.

Once he left the state, he pretty much put it in his rear-view mirror. Oh, he would slip into town occasionally, unnoticed, to see a few close friends in recent years. But he rebuffed opportunities to be honored by the U. or to be interviewed by the local press.

A year or two after he resigned his job, I talked to a writer I knew from Albuquerque, who did a big feature on Majerus. He told me he talked for at least an hour to Rick, who regaled him with stories about his favorite restaurants in town and his memories of playing at The Pit. All this for a guy he saw maybe twice a year.

Yet when the writer who talked to him hundreds of times called to get an interview looking back on his career at Utah and an update on what he was up to at the time, it was a different story. Though he was gracious, Majerus couldn’t get off the phone fast enough, saying, “Tell everyone there, I’m doing fine” before quickly hanging up. When Alex Jensen, his favorite player of all time who was his assistant coach at the time, asked him if he would talk to the same Utah writer for a story about the 10-year anniversary of the 1998 team, he refused.

Although we never had a close personal relationship, I do remember one of the most meaningful things he ever said to me. While most of the hundreds of articles I wrote about him and his team were positive, there were a few that were critical, like his handling of the Marc Jackson and Lance Allred affairs or the NCAA sanctions in 2003 or his annual early-season games against the likes of Cardinal Stritch. But he gave me perhaps the best compliment a journalist can get, when he said, “you’ve always been fair with me.’’

That’s the same thing most of his former players would say about Majerus. They may not have liked him or agreed with some of his tactics, but they’d say he was always fair.

I expect the U. athletic department will honor Majerus soon, perhaps even within the next few months. I know they’ve tried to put him in the Crimson Club Hall of Fame, and that would be very appropriate. So would hoisting a cream-colored sweater to the Huntsman Center rafters next to the jerseys of Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller, the two best players he coached at Utah.

That day should come soon. It’s just too bad Majerus won’t be around to see it.

E-mail: sor@desnews.com Twitter: sorny8

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